Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Switzerland!

We made it to Switzerland despite the strike in Paris. After leaving at 6AM and walking to the one fully functioning Metro line (because it's automated), we arrived at Gare de Lyon and realized that the train would go more or less on time (just a 10 minute delay).

As we traveled, we saw mountains, snow, cows, sheep, and beautiful scenery the whole way. The travel took about 5 hours with a connection in Lausanne, but the trains were comfortable and speedy. Bern is a wonderful city with lots of cobblestone streets, Medieval architecture, and fountains. I can't upload pictures at the hotel, but will try later. We've had lots of good things to eat already, and more to come. The contents of the bakeries and chocolate shops look delicious.

Lorraine and her boyfriend arrive tomorrow. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Our Last Day in Paris?


The strike is still on (day 8), so we're not sure whether we'll make it to Switzerland or not. Today, government workers had their strike, which they had planned a few weeks ago, and that only added to the chaos. If we can't make it to Switzerland, we'll stay in Paris until it's time to return to Memphis

For more info on the strike, see: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/11/20/europe/strike.php

France resolute on change as mass walkout cripples country
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

PARIS: Civil servants, from teachers to postal workers, began a mass walkout across France on Tuesday, the seventh day of a transport strike that has caused havoc on French rails. But the government said it would not abandon its planned changes.

Up to half of the country's teachers could stay off the job in support of higher salaries and job security, officials have said. Postal and tax services were also affected. Flight disruptions were expected, as air traffic controllers are also civil servants.

National newspapers were absent from the streets Tuesday as printers and delivery personnel joined the strike.

Though not state workers, they used the opportunity to protest job cuts.

With a paralyzing transit strike stretching toward its eighth day, Ludovic Boltz, a commuter, stood in the gloom on a suburban train platform Monday, fuming about his daily journey and shaking a bag of baguettes in fury.

"My opinion of this strike is that it's annoying lots of people and lots of workers," he said, voice rising above a bellowing announcement of another train delay. "It amounts to terrorism, and we're the hostages."

But there was no relief in sight to ease the commuter misery from the national transport strike that the government says is costing the nation from €300 million to €400 million, or $444 million to $591 million, a day. On Monday, rail workers voted to press on with the strike, most likely at least through Wednesday, when union officials will sit down with government officials and transportation executives for talks.

November is shaping up as the high season in France for strikes, with students challenging a new higher education law, tobacco shop owners organizing to demonstrate against a new anti-smoking law and French judges and lawyers poised for a Nov. 29 strike to protest structural changes that could result in the elimination of 200 courts.

Along the train platforms, weary resignation with limited services is starting to turn into resentment as the crippling strike continues. On Sunday, several groups organized a counterdemonstration in eastern Paris to demand an end to the conflict.

The governing party, the UMP, has been passing out fliers at train stations denouncing rail workers as a "minority defending a system of retirement at two speeds."

"People are really fed up," said Sabine Herold, a spokeswoman for a group called Liberal Alternative, which helped organize the stop-the-strike rally in Paris. "It's very complicated with the subway, buses and trains blocked. It's very difficult to have a normal life. People are really fed up because they think the strikers are egotistical."

The rail unions are fighting to keep special privileges for about 500,000 workers that grant locomotive drivers, for example, the option of retiring at 50 or 55 with full pension benefits. The government wants the workers to pay into the retirement system for at least 40 years, changes that have already taken place for workers in private industry and the civil service.

On Sunday, the stop-the-strike demonstration drew about 8,000 people, according to the police, or 20,000, according to organizers, who noted that people had braved bitter cold to participate, along with a general lack of transportation.

It was hardly the turnout of May 1968 when a huge showing of the "silent majority" converged on the Champs-Élysées to demonstrate support for President Charles de Gaulle, who was confronting student unrest.

But Herold said the group had united with others to organize another rally for next Sunday if the strikes continue. Others in her group, like Jean-Paul Oury, said they considered the counterdemonstration over the weekend just the first round.

Polls show that the counterdemonstrators are tapping into popular sentiment, with a majority of the French people siding with President Nicolas Sarkozy on changes in the pension system.

A weekend poll by Ipsos, commissioned by the government, found that support for changing the pension system had grown 10 percentage points to 64 percent in one week, while support for the strikers had dropped from 35 percent to 33 percent.

In the meantime, French commuters are turning to classic coping techniques: bicycling, roller-skating, carpooling and telecommuting.

Some small businesses are changing work hours so that employees come in earlier to leave before the gridlock begins.

Monday, November 19, 2007

On the Batobus

Ellen and I rode the Batobus, a boat shuttle which runs in a loop on the Seine. Since I'm writing about the river for this research project, I thought I needed to get out on it. Paris looks a little different from the water. You get a new perspective on buildings, monuments, and the whole city. We saw things we had never noticed before.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

At the Louvre

Here's Ellen puzzling over the map of the Louvre. We went today to see the 19th century French paintings and a show of Biedermeier furniture, among other things. It was cold and rainy as we left one of our favorite restaurants, Le Loup Blanc, but we made it home on foot. The strike is still on with no end in sight. However, we checked the internet, and the trains to Switzerland may still be running. We'll have to see.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ellen Is Here!

Ellen made it to town last night after a 3 hour van ride from the airport. The strike is still on, so traffic was worse than normal, and apparently she was the last stop on the driver's list. But I treated her to a nice dinner out at one of our favorite restaurants (Le Gai Moulin), and she slept late this morning. Here she is having an afternoon pick-me-up following our trip to Le Grand Palais to see an exhibition of Gustave Courbet's artworks.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Parisian Layers

Paris is a city of layers, many of which you can see right before your eyes. This building on the rue Francois Miron demonstrates this principle well. It dates from the early 16th century, but its earliest components go back to the 14th century. Restored in the late 1960s, it remains one of the few surviving examples of Medieval domestic architecture in the city. Of course it's surrounded by much more modern construction from the 19th and 20th centuries -- hence the layers.

Throughout Paris, the mixture of old and new stands out, especially as I've seen a number of restaurants which have recently been remodeled and are shiny with glass and metal. My visit to the Quai Branly museum (about which I wrote a few weeks ago) reinforced that sense of the new. But there are still plenty of old buildings which have stood for centuries.

Still, I often think that people, especially tourists, focus on the old and the historic without realizing that Paris is a modern, growing city which often needs new construction. Just like every city, Paris is changing, even though many people still like to imagine it stuck in the past. But, even with all the change, the past remains, and it presents itself in buildings like this one.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bikes in the City

The strike continues today, and as a result there are many more bikes on the street as people try to find alternative ways of getting around the city. But even without the strike, the people-to-bike ratio had already increased thanks to the Velib, the city's new bicycle rental service. For a modest fee, you can sign up for this program, and any bike you check out from one of the many stands around town is free for the first 30 minutes. As a result, there are more Parisians on wheels.

The program has been a huge success, although whether it has helped to reduce traffic is hard to tell. In fact, I think it has made being a pedestrian a little harder. Bike riders don't always follow the traffic rules as they should, sometimes running red lights or making unexpected turns. And they frequently come up onto the sidewalk, either to avoid street traffic, to make a shortcut, or just to have the open pavement to themselves. But the sidewalks aren't always open, and they're often quite narrow. When a bike shows up, almost all of the limited space suddenly vanishes. I've almost been hit by bikes on more than one occasion just walking down the sidewalk minding my own business.

I'm all in favor of the Velibs for being environmentally friendly, and on a strike day like today, I'm glad to see people still getting around. But unfortunately, they add another element of the unknown into the already confusing Paris streets.

Image courtesy of www.20minutes.fr

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Strike Two


November is the season for strikes in France this year. The rail workers went out last night, and university students have been striking for a couple of days and have had some violent clashes with the police. On November 20, the fonctionnaires, or government workers, are walking out. France has a strong labor movement, in part because they follow through on their promise to strike.

The issues are varied, but they all seem to center around the uncertain relationship between the people and their new president, Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is a reformer with a sometimes brash style. He's been dubbed "the American" becuase many of his policies seem to be more in the US model than in the more traditional French way of doing business. He argues that the old way of working won't work any more and that things have to change. For instance, in the case of railway workers, they have a special arrangement that allows them to retire a few years earlier than the standard age of 55. Sarkozy argues that this inequality in the system costs the whole social security structure and must be brought into line with what other businesses do. But the rail workers are not happy about it, countering that they have been given one set of rules for years and that now the goalposts are moving.

Most of the population is actually on Sarkozy's side with polls showing some 55% of French people in favor of the reform. But the other 45% who agree with the strikers is still a sizable minority. France is divided over how to move into the 21st century, but in the meantime no one is going anywhere -- at least not on the trains.

I'm hoping that this will be resolved by the time Ellen and I are scheduled to leave for Switzerland next week. Most people I've talked to here seem to think it will be over in a few days. But every once in a while, someone mentions 1995, the last time the government tried to reform the special retirement regime for rail workers. Apparently, they were out for weeks. But a lot has changed since then, and I don't think anyone can predict how this will play out.

The image is of people trying to cram onto one of the few trains that did run, courtesy of France 3 (www.france3.fr)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Paris is a Carnival

The ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde has been up ever since I got here. I haven't ridden it, but I'm sure it provides a great view of the Champs-Elysees and the Louvre since it sits right between them.

There's always a certain carnivalesque aspect to Paris, whether it's the sights or the sounds. Yesterday when I left the library, I heard a young man singing at the top of his voice to the song on his i-pod. He was French, but of course he was singing in English. I guess he didn't mind sharing his performance with the rest of the city.

Monday, November 12, 2007

An Accidentally Great Meal

After church yesterday, I wandered around the neighborhood with some friends looking for a place to eat. The 8th arrondissement is a hard place to find a restaurant which isn't expensive or touristy. It's also a pretty sleepy area on a Sunday. Most of the places were empty, but we passed by one restaurant that was bustling. It was full of families with kids (a little unusual) and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. We looked for the menu (la carte, in French), but couldn't find one posted outside. But because it looked like the place to be in this neighborhood, we decided to try it anyway.

When we sat down, they didn't bring us la carte, but instead asked us how we wanted our meat cooked. We told them, and within a couple of minutes, they brought us a small salad. Then, within a few moments of our finishing, they brought us a plate of steak with frites (fries). On top of the steak was some kind of sauce, maybe an herb butter. We began to eat, unsure of what we had gotten ourselves into. But it was fabulous! The steak was tender and juicy, and the sauce only added to the delicious flavor. The frites were crispy and golden. We looked around and realized that everyone else was eating exactly the same thing. This is the only thing they serve in the restaurant, something which explains the super-fast service.

Then, just as we were finishing our hearty portions, the waitress came over with a second helping of everything. I was shocked, becuase this does not usually happen in France. There are no "seconds," at least not in restaurants. French establishments usually offer a portion size which is just right -- not too big, like most American restaurants, but not too small. But here she was, giving us more steak (not as much as the first time) and frites. We couldn't say no.

As we sat there, I could watch the line out the door grow, so that by the time we left, there were a couple of dozen people standing outside waiting to get in (at 2:00 PM). This is clearly somthing which many Parisians know about and have made their Sunday lunch tradition. Turns out that Le Relais de l'Entrecote has several locations, including in Geneva, and many people have reviewed it on Paris food websites. But we just stumbled into it one Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, those accidental finds turn out to be the best places. And Paris is full of such accidental finds.

See their website: http://www.relaisentrecote.fr/

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day, which marks the end of World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It's a holiday which Europeans still take seriously. Although I didn't go, there were ceremonies this morning on the Champs-Elysee.

In the US, this day has become Veterans Day, something set aside for veterans of all wars. But we also have Memorial Day, which started after the Civil War, so the memory of World War I is somewhat diluted. And November 11 is so close to Thanksgiving that Americans are too busy looking ahead to it that Veterans Day gets lost in the holiday shuffle.

But Europeans still keep the memory of the so-called Great War -- the "war to end all wars" -- alive. As I tell my students when I lecture on World War I, nearly every French village and town has a World War I monument often bearing the names of those lost in the conflict, so that even today when you walk through the town square, you read the names of the men who died. The losses in France were great -- more per capita than any other belligerent during the conflict. So World War I still looms large in their memory.

After World War I, the international pacifist movement gained strength, and governments worked to try and prevent further conflict. They created the League of Nations so that countries could resolve disagreements peacefully. They passed the famous Kellogg-Briand Pact which outlawed war as a means of conflict resolution. The 1920s and 1930s were full of struggle, but the hope for peace was so strong, that they tried every way they could to avoid war again -- even to the point of the now infamous Munich agreement with Hitler.

To us, Munich always looks like foolishness, but that's because we see it in hindsight. To Europeans in the 1930s, their hindsight was the trench warfare of World War I, an experience so grisly and horrible that they would do everything in their power to keep from going back into those trenches. We need that kind of hopefulness for peace again, especially on Armistice Day.

Some food food for thought: "It's Past Time to Bury the Hitler Analogy" at The American Prospect's website: http://www.prospect.org

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bastille Column / Update on Angela Davis Image

The Bastille column sits on the site of the old Bastille prison which was torn down in 1789 at the beginning of the French Revolution. It actually commemorates another revolution -- the Revolution of 1830 -- when the French, once again, overthrew their king. Today, it remains a site of popular protest when people want to make their voice heard in Paris. But at night, that symbolism gives way to the beautiful illumination of the column against the sky.

Update on a previous post: Ellen showed my photograph of the Angela Davis image in Paris to her class, and one of her students identified it as the work of Obey. See http://obeygiant.com for more information, including other uses of that same image of Davis.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Expatriate Communities

This morning, I gave a presentation on jazz in Paris to a class at the American University in Paris. I had met the instructor, an NYU graduate student, at a social event, and we have had a few conversations. I enjoyed meeting the class and talking about a familiar subject. I was also glad to visit the American University campus -- actually a collection of buildings in the neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower. These lucky students can see the Tower every time they walk to their library.

The experience made me think about the American community here in Paris and how big and interconnected it is. I studied this phenomenon when writing about jazz, but I'm only now really feeling that sense of an expatriate community on this trip. Between the other fellows at the Institute, a weekly meeting of American academics organized through the H-France email listserv, and a few other people, I know more Americans in Paris than on any other trip here. Visiting the American University, as well as at Reid Hall, reminded me that there are so many Americans here at any given time.

Being an expatriate here means living in Paris and perhaps knowing some French people (I had lunch with the one French academic I know) but also being part of a community which still remains set apart -- "foreign," for lack of a better term. People who understand each other through shared cultural values, assumptions, and references naturally seem to find each other and click, even if they might never meet or get to know each other in the US. When living in another culture, we look for the people most like us because they remind us of home.

On this trip, I've come to be even more sympathetic to anyone who leaves the country where they were born and moves to another place, especially when learning another language. It takes lots of guts, brains, and willpower to be an immigrant not only because it means learning so much that is new, but giving up so much that is a part of you.

Living in another culture sounds romantic until you do it yourself for a time. Then you begin to understand why, for instance, immigrants to the US from various places around the world live near one another, create their own stores, churches, clubs, and other institutions. Americans have done the same in Paris (and elsewhere). You could go to an American high school and an American university, attend American churches, read in the American library, and eat in American restaurants all right here in Paris. I'm not an immigrant, only a temporary expatriate. But I have a new appreciation for anyone who leaves home for another land, even if only for a short time.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Flower Market

Even as the weather gets chillier, the Paris flower market continues. Located on l'Ile de la Cite not far from Notre Dame, it's the kind of thing that's easy to miss because it's surrounded by more famous landmarks. But Parisians love their flowers, whether in the parks or on the corner flower shops that you can find in nearly every neighborhood. And everyone can find something they like at the flower market.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Dressing Up

I pass this shop every day on my way to the office. It's a theatrical costume shop, conveniently located just down the street from the Theatre de l'Odeon. It's always a little strange to see these figures staring out into the street.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Paris On the Run

One of the changes I've noticed most during this trip to Paris is the number of Parisians who jog. In the past, only the Americans jogged, or if the French did, I only saw them in one place, the Parc Montsouris on the southern edge of the city. But now, I see Parisians jogging in the street and in several parks. I've even seen groups of high school students running laps around the Jardin du Luxembourg urged on by a coach with a whistle. I don't think of Parisians as joggers, so this has been something of a strange sight.

It also reminds me of New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik's essay in his book Paris to the Moon about joining a gym while living in Paris with his family. After signing up, he did his workout and went home. But when he returned to the gym the next day, the people at the front desk expressed surprise that he had returned so soon. They warned him not to overexert himself by working out every day. Somehow, that didn't fit with the Parisian frame of mind, despite the fact that there are plenty of gyms and swimming pools around town.

Why Parisians seem to be more interested in jogging, I don't know. Their new president Nicholas Sarkozy is a jogger. Perhaps they too are concerned about health issues and youth obesity. The more McDonalds hamburgers they eat, the more they might actually have something to worry about. Either way, now I have to watch out so that I don't get run down by the runners in the park.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Doctor in the House?



I ran across this store which specializes in rare medical books and antiques not too far from the apartment. There are skulls and large-scale models of organs on its shelves, old pieces of medical equipment, diagrams of the human body, and thousands of books. It's just across from the medical school, so I'm sure they cater to students and professors interested in the history of medicine. It just goes to show that there's something in Paris for everyone.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Borrowed Monument

Paris is full of memorials and monuments, but this one is particularly interesting. It's a monument called the "Flame of Liberty" that commemorates the French government's donation of the Statue of Liberty to the US. But its location has caused it to be turned into something else. It sits at the Place de l'Alma, just above where Princess Diana's car crashed 10 years ago. So, it has become an informal, impromptu monument to her. You can see the picture of her plastered to the side of the pedestal and the flowers, notes, pictures and other mementos left there by admirers. I'm sure there are always things which people place there in memory of her, but given that this is the 10th anniversary, they've probably been putting more things there than usual.

It's interesting to think about how one monument has been co-opted and appropriated for a completely different purpose simply because of its location. I'm sure the fact that it's a monument to the concept of liberty helps since many people thought of Diana as a "free spirit," especially after her divorce from Prince Charles. Had this originally been a monument to Polish volunteers in the French Revolution or Protestants massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day, it would have been harder to borrow for the purpose of remembering Diana. But whether through fortunate coincidence or simply the happenstance of geography, this place -- as close as you can get to the location of her death without traveling in a car through the tunnel -- has become the pilgrimage site for those who want to remember "the people's Princess" when they visit Paris.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

On the Road Again


I first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road ten years ago during my first trip to Paris. It was the book’s 40th anniversary, and I read an article about it on an in-flight magazine. That, plus the fact that a friend had recommended it to me and that I kept seeing it in bookstores, led me to buy it in London’s Gatwick Airport. I still have the cash register receipt, yellowed and creased, tucked into the book. So I know that I read the first words of the book -- “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up....” -- on September 21, 1997. I thought, “Hey, I’m on the road too,” and plunged into a book that, it turned out, would change much about the way I thought.

I just finished reading it again, ten years later. Much has changed during that time. Now it’s the book’s 50th anniversary. Again, Kerouac has been getting much attention. I read most of John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters before I left for Paris. But I’ve changed too. And my reading of this book, important for me in many ways over the past decade, has evolved.

When I first read Kerouac, I was struck by the sense of adventure, fun, and excitement of being on the road -- something I felt then too being in Paris for the first time. For Sal and Dean and the other characters in the slightly-fictionalized version of Kerouac’s own travels in the late 1940s, the goal was having “kicks” and seeing what lay ahead on a road that stretched out beyond where the eye could see. The theme that I paid most attention to was their desire for experience, life, and exploration. They couldn’t seem to explore enough, both of America and of themselves.

Those two were, metaphorically, the same thing. Sal and Dean are “all-American” boys, although not the sort from 1950s sitcoms. Dean -- based on the real-life Neal Cassidy -- is a former juvenile delinquent and ex-con, a feverish talker, crazy driver, and con man who thinks of little but himself. He is plagued by “madness,” something which Kerouac never labels or describe any further, but seems to be a cross between ADD and existential angst. Dean is endearing in many ways too. Throughout the book, he pulsates with energy and literally says “Yes” to everything and everyone he meets. His life may be troubled, but it’s certainly full to the brim.

Sal -- the fictionalized Kerouac himself -- is quieter, shyer, more reflective and broody. He embraces an America that is similarly “beat” -- the word that he popularized. “Beat” means down-and-out, but it takes on tones of mystical revelation. Drawing on his Catholic heritage, Kerouac’s “beatness” meant being beaten down to the point of seeing things in a new way, of removing all your old self and creating a new one. Beat revelation could lead to resurrection. And that’s the America Sal sees.

One of the things I loved most about this book when I first read it was that he captures of a vision of post-WWII America that is not the one of economic good times, the baby boom, and suburban white picket fences. There is no nuclear family, no new car in the driveway, and no mom vacuuming in high heals and pearls. Instead, there are migrant farm workers in California picking fruit, black jazzmen blowing in juke joints, bums riding the rails and warming themselves around fires, and the “beat generation” of bohemian writers like Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and others before they became the famous icons of modern American literature. They are Kerouac’s heroes because their outsider status -- and their “beatness” -- means that in his eyes, they are closer to some greater truth than all the people who follow the rules and do what they’re told. The “beat” have nothing to lose because they’re already society’s losers. That makes them “the poor in spirit” to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven.

My reading of the world in On the Road in 1997 was one of limitless possibility. Ten years later, that theme is still there, and it still make readings this novel fun. But other elements of the narrative came clearer to me this time. For one, this is a story of loss. The entire book is told in retrospect as Sal looks back over the course of his friendship with Dean, knowing -- as we do by the end of the book -- that their friendship will end. The story is intensely personal, the tale of two men who start off as adventurers and become spiritual brothers, but who eventually take different paths out of adolescence and youth into adulthood. Kerouac shows us the intertwining and the unraveling of two lives, but leaves us with only with a sense of loss.

That notion of loss runs throughout the book as Sal and Dean search for “IT,” as Dean calls that sense of revelation, but which they rarely ever find. Dean is constantly looking for his long-lost alcoholic father who has abandoned him, and Kerouac ends the novel by conflating the two men. The book’s last words are: “...I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” The sense of absence permeates Sal and Dean’s relationship. The climax of the novel comes at the moment and in the place where Sal and Dean come closest to the freedom and inspiration for which they’ve been looking as they encounter a limitless sensual and emotional experience in Mexico, a place they see as being free of strictures and limitations of American society. Kerouac calls it “the end of the road.”

But at that moment, Sal falls gravely ill with dysentery and Dean, having gotten the quickie Mexican divorce from one of his several wives, returns to New York. At the moment when Sal needs a friend most, Dean reveals his true, selfish nature and leaves him to recuperate on his own. Dean, the abandoned one, now abandons Sal. They meet again, and Sal seems to have forgiven, or excused, Dean’s behavior, but from then on nothing is ever the same between them. Sal finds the girl he’s always been looking for and plans to marry her. Dean criss-crosses the country to see Sal, but never explains why. And they are forced to part as Sal goes off in a limo to a Duke Ellington concert, this time abandoning Dean on a freezing cold Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, never to see him again.

Sal loses more than his friend, he loses his illusions about life and love. He still embraces a romantic vision of “beat America” where the downtrodden are more real and true than the mainstream and the road still beckons to him as the path to a mystical journey. Later novels carry on this theme of travel as redemption and enlightenment. But it’s the human story of the ending of his friendship with Dean that made its powerful punch to me this time.

The other theme, related to the first, that became more apparent to me on this reading was the loneliness of the road which Sal feels, especially in the first part of the book. On his first journey when he crosses the US by himself, he meets many people and has a range of interactions. But there are long stretches of solitude too. For all the connections he makes, each one leads to an eventual departure and to having no one on whom to rely but himself.

The best example is his encounter with Terry, the Mexican girl he meets on the bus to California. They start a relationship and almost see themselves as married for a time. Their feelings seem genuine, and he moves to be with her family and picks fruit with them in the hot sun. There, he dreams of being a Mexican -- a fantasy full of romantic stereotyping which bears little resemblance to the real lives these people lead. But, despite the intensity of his feeling for Terry and the time he spends with her, he knows that it has to end. And it does. The road remains open -- it beckons to him -- but often he’s the only one on it.

On the Road is packed with so many scenes, moments, ideas, and themes that every journey through it will bring something new to the fore. Reading it while traveling seems to add a different spin too. Kerouac may be right: being “on the road” is a time of revelation and enlightenment. Getting outside one’s normal circumstances shakes things up and makes you look at the world from a different angle. Travel broadens the mind, but sometimes, as Kerouac reveals, troubles the heart.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Market Day

I think markets like these (this one is on the Boulevard Raspail) are one big reason why Americans like Paris. We have farmers' markets in the US, but somehow the outdoor markets in Paris seem more exciting. For one thing, the food is always fresh, and it's all out there for you to see. And there are things you will never see in the US -- for instance the hare (with blood-stained fur still on -- now that's fresh!) and pheasants in one of the photos. The French seem to have no problem putting raw meat out on display without refrigeration. The varieties also seem endless. Dozens of cheeses, breads, vegetables, cuts of meat, nuts, seafood (including whole octopus), and anything else you want. People pull their little shopping carts along the sidewalk which is now turned into the central aisle of one of the world's best grocery stores. Vendors sometimes call out with information about their wares. One sang a song. It's a real neighborhood event.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For All the Saints


Today is Toussaint -- All Saint's Day -- and everyone goes to the cemetery to visit their friends and family members who have passed on. I went to the Montparnasse cemetery and saw people cleaning graves and planting flowers (as in the photos) and reflecting quietly. A few tourists looked around too since the cemeteries of Paris are always a popular sight. They're a calm and peaceful place in the middle of a busy city, and they're so different from most American cemeteries with their enormous monuments and sculptures.

Many things are closed today since Toussaint is a pretty big holiday. The streets were extremely quiet this morning. But the day begs a set of interesting questions about why a secular country which has no official religion celebrates a religious holiday. Of course, we do this in the US by closing so many things for Christmas. But France's relationship to its Catholic heritage is more complex. In addition to Christmas, they take off for days like Pentecost and All Saint's. Every night on the weather report, they tell viewers what the next day's liturgical holiday is -- what saint's day or festival day it is. France has its national holiday too on Bastille Day in July, but many of the days on which things are closed are religious in their origin.

Clearly, this reflect's France's tradition as a Catholic country which, although having officially separated church and state in 1905, is still steeped in a cultural tradition which emerges from that faith. In the US, we have a longer tradition of religious pluralism, even though much of that pluralism was between different Christian sects and denominations. The battles in France over religion and politics have been long and sometimes bloody -- the 16th century Wars of Religion, for example, or religious violence during the French Revolution. These fights are part of why many people struggled to separate faith and politics since people were literally killing each other because of their beliefs. But as holidays like Toussaint indicate, that cultural memory is deeply embedded and, despite the history, hasn't gone away.

I also wonder if these kinds of religious holidays perhaps aggrivate tensions between France and its Muslim immigrant populations, especially because it reveals a certain hypocrisy over the way that French society deals with religious expression. The big battle here during the last few years has been over whether Muslim girls could wear headscarves in school. The girls and their families argued that head coverings were a symbol of faith and of modesty required by their religion. The government countered that there should be no religious symbols in any French school because schools are a secular space where everyone is a citizen first, not a part of some other competing identity group. France has traditionally disliked the idea of hyphenation: there are no Franco-Africans or Franco-Italians in the way we have African-Americans and Italian-Americans, and the French census does not record statistics about race or ethnicity. To be "French" is supposedly to give up any claim on some other identity.

But when the stores, libraries, restaurants, and indeed much of Paris seems to have shut down for Toussaint and when they announce that tomorrow is Saint So-and-So's holiday on the nightly weather report, surely Muslims and other religious groups must wonder what's going on. How can one identity be so culturally ingrained and empowered that it controls the calendar while another identity can't be expressed by wearing a simple piece of clothing?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I think it's a relatively recent phenomenon, but the French celebrate Halloween too. When I first came to Paris 10 years ago, I remember seeing people in costume on the Metro that night. Last weekend, I saw people walking around in costume too, perhaps going to early Halloween parties since the day falls mid-week this year. I saw these boxes of candy in a shop a few days ago as people prepared for the day. I'm not sure if they go Trick or Treating, though.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Statement of Faith

I don't know how well you can see the photo (click to enlarge), but these are plaques on the walls in the Eglise des Blancs- Manteaux in the Marais section of Paris. Many of the churches here have such plaques, placed by people as a sign of thanks for prayers answered or lives changed. Undoubtedly, they also reflect a certain social status -- only those who could afford to pay were able to place such a plaque. But they are an interesting and lasting testament to the power of people's faith.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Breakfast in America in Paris

I've never been to this restaurant, but I've heard of it many times, and when I walked past it the other day, I decided to take a picture of the sign. It's an American-style diner with American-style food. I suppose it caters to Americans longing for the kind of food they get at home and to French people who like to imagine that they're in the US. It also speaks of the fascination of the French with aspects of American culture, some of which you might not expect . Many Americans travel to France precisely for the food which they consider to be superior to US food. I wonder what they think when they see Breakfast in America?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Smells of Paris

Paris is not just a city of sights but also of smells. Walking through the Marais neighborhood, I encountered this fish market with both bright, beautiful colors and the smell of fresh seafood wafting out into the street. There are other smells too. A few weeks ago, I saw some beautiful mushrooms with a strong, earthy smell. The city itself smells too, as Ellen and I found out a couple of summers ago when we took the sewer tour.

I think the French are more accustomed to smells than Americans. In the US, we work hard to eliminate odors. Fish counters at US supermarkets don't smell like fish -- even though they should. We prize cleanliness to the point of removing the sensory experience, whether it's smell or sometimes taste. But in Paris, smells and flavors seem more pronounced. I think that's part of why Americans like to eat when they come here -- you can taste the food, and smell it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Family Band

Coming back from the grocery store this afternoon, I encountered this band playing on the street. It was a father and his 2 sons, all joining in on some familiar American jazz and pop tunes. The older boy -- the one playing the trumpet in the photo -- sang as well. He was a bit shy about it, but I think it made his performance more endearing since it must take a lot of guts to stand on a Parisian street corner and sing -- with a microphone too. They weren't the most polished band I've ever heard (although they were pretty good), but they were definitely a crowd favorite. People gathered around and listened, clapped, and gave them money. You can't really tell in the photo, but the younger one is playing a little kid-sized keyboard.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Paris 2010

I found this video on You Tube. Turn up your volume, and hopefully you can see it. A couple of years ago, some people here in Paris made a "speculative documentary" about what would happen if something like the 1910 flood which I'm currently studying happened again in 2010. I'm planning to see the whole film on Monday, but this trailer has certainly piqued my interest.

I don't think of the French as being so obsessed with disasters as Americans are. The US seems to be prone to disasters -- the current fires in California, earthquakes, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes -- and our media seem to dwell on them endlessly. Disasters do happen here too, but I don't associate them with the kind of mass panic which American movies try to dramatize. But, as this film shows, maybe there is some sense of impending doom here too.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Angela Davis in Paris

Ellen and I saw this last summer. I had looked for it again this year, but didn't find it until today. I still don't know why there is a large picture of the famous black radical activist Angela Davis -- in full 1970s militant mode, afro and all -- on the wall of a nice Left Bank Parisian neighborhood not too far from Le Bon Marche. But apparently, the French are taken with her. Last summer, Ellen and I saw some socks with her image on them (this same image, I think). Davis studied in Paris during her youth, so perhaps that's part of the connection. Maybe her image is like that of the famous picture of Che Guevara which has become such a commodity that it's on t-shirts, posters, and everything else. Che is probably turning in his grave -- how can you fight the system when you are co-opted by the system? I wonder what Angela Davis thinks?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paris Arcades

The Arcades of Paris are well-known to historians but sometimes missed by visitors. Essentially, Parisians invented the mall. In the early 19th century, they enclosed areas between streets to create new passageways which became important places to socialize and to see and be seen. Now, many of the arcades -- like this one just off of the Grands Boulevards -- have skylights and lots of little shops, boutiques, and restaurants. They're a nice respite from the street where you can still see interesting things.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Get Your Chestnuts!

As the weather gets cooler, the chestnut vendors come out onto the street. They cook the nuts on little grills and keep their apparatus inside an old grocery cart. I haven't seen too many vendors yet, but this one was near the Musee d'Orsay last Sunday. I've never eaten any of the chestnuts, but they smell great.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Museum With No Name

I visited the Musée du Quai Branly yesterday, and found it an interesting place. It’s one of Paris’ newest museums, and it’s devoted to the art and culture of the non-Western world. Exhibits cover areas in Oceania, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. I think it wants to be a global museum for a global age.

But the name of the museum speaks to the problem with the collection: it’s not named after its contents, but rather after the street where it’s located. It would be like calling a museum in the US the “Main Street Museum” or the “Poplar Avenue Museum.” The name tells you nothing about what’s inside, only where to find it.

The issue, I think, is the fact that the French have these artifacts from the rest of the world because they colonized all of these places in the nineteenth century. Now that European colonialism is a defunct institution and historians have revealed it as the exploitative and brutal practice that it was, France is faced with a tough question. How to display the items that they took from other parts of the world, sometimes by force, when they ruled these peoples? What do you call a museum that is comprised of the spoils of war and slavery when you’re trying to put a positive spin on it?

So they call it the Musée du Quai Branly because it sits on the Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower (you can see it in the background of my picture). It’s a beautiful, modern glass and metal structure with a park outside and plants actually growing out of the facade. It wraps you in nature when you enter. Maybe that helps to take the edge off of the story contained -- but not really told -- inside the building.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The End of Rugby / I Like Pschitt!

Here are two unrelated thoughts:

1. Last night was the final of the Rugby World Cup which has been going on ever since I arrived. South Africa defeated England, something which I understand was not a surprise. There were lots of English fans in town, especially in my neighborhood. They wore funny colorful wigs and bright rugby shirts and scarves.

What surprised me was the fact that apparently the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is an English rugby song. I asked my Australian colleague at the Institute about it since she follows rugby. She said that they seem to sing it in hopes of "carrying" the score "home," or higher. But to American ears, this made no sense. "Swing Low" is a classic African-American spiritual about death. The song prays for a chariot to descend from heaven and carry souls back to God. This struck me as a very strange form of cultural appropriation. But I guess one person's lament is another's cheer.

2. The photo: Pschitt is a fizzy lemonade, despite the name. I though you might find it amusing too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Candy Man

I pass this candy stand nearly every day at the Place de l'Odeon. The smell of sugar, chocolate, nuts, and other good things fills the air there, and it's sometimes hard to resist. There's a crosswalk just to the left of this stand, and when I'm waiting for the light, I get a little hungry for candy. I haven't bought anything yet, though. There are nearly always people putting their sweets into the little sacks -- it's a popular place. (The man in the picture is one of the people who runs the stand.) I also like the fact that it's so colorful. As Paris gets colder and sometimes a little more grey, having a splash of color on the street is a welcome change.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Le Divorce


I watched the strikes unfold yesterday on the internet from my office. Interestingly, another news story edged the strike out of the top headlines during the day: the divorce of President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia.

For the most part, Paris went on as usual. The streets had more bikes than normal, including the new rental bikes provided by the city, the Velib. But the story of the divorce was seen as both ordinary and surprising. The French pride themselves on having a very different response to the private lives of their politicians compared to Americans. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the French probably shrugged and said "C'est normal." After all, former President Francois Mitterand was well-known to have a mistress by whom he had a child. The polls say that the majority of French people believe that this divorce will have no effect on Sarkozy's ability to work as President.

But, somewhat surprisingly, the Sarkozy divorce seemed to become the big news of the day. The President's private life had become public and was the subject of much discussion. Perhaps the French are more interested in these things than they like to admit. Or maybe Sarkozy, the "American-style" president is getting American-style media attention. There was a little bit of Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the suffering of others, as the Germans call it) in the press which has been critical of Sarkozy.

But there are two ways to read this episode. On one hand, someone might pity Sarkozy because of his personal loss at a moment of political crisis. He had campaigned on the idea that his wife would be an informal member of his administration (a kind of Hillary Clinton circa 1992), but now she abandons him when he needs her most. Will Sarkozy's poll numbers go up as a result of sympathy?

But the other way to look at this is to note that on Wednesday, the presidential spokesman vehemently denied any impending divorce. Then, the very next day, it was announced as a fait accompli. Did Sarkozy time the announcement of the divorce to blunt the media's coverage of the strike? Here's a quote from one of Sarkozy's political rivals as reported in the New York Times:
“The Élysée has chosen this Thursday, a day of strong social mobilization, to make the information official,” said Annick Lepetit, the Socialist Party’s national secretary, in a communiqué. “We will leave it to the French people to judge if it’s only a simple coincidence.”

Either way, the strike continues today, and I'm back in the office rather than the library. And Paris rolls on.

(Image from the New York Times website)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Paris En Greve


Paris -- and in fact all of France -- is not itself today because of an enormous transport strike (la greve). The Metro, commuter trains, buses, and the high-speed TGV that goes between cities are either not working at all or are on very limited schedules. Workers are protesting changes in the government's retirement policy, and have shut down one of the city's basic infrastructure elements to make their point. All this while thousands of English rugby fans are on their way to Paris for the Rugby World Cup final.

For me, it's kind of like a snow day. Everyone knew it was coming and made alternate plans. I cancelled my request at the library. Some things go on as normal, but other things are postponed. Our Institute tea is this afternoon, but if some people can't make it to Reid Hall, everyone will understand. We make do.

Much of the strike is bound up in the specifics of French politics. The new president Nicholas Sarkozy wants to revitalize the French economy -- along lines similar to the US,
according to many -- but doing so creates not only an economic but a cultural conflict. Which is most important: working longer and making more money, or working less and having more free time? That's at the heart of the issues related not only to the strike but to why Sarkozy is so controversial. He won the presidency with a majority, but a substantial number of French voters hold onto long-cherished notions of being able to appreciate the "joie de vivre" that comes not with work but with leisure. That's why there is a 35 hour work week and a very early retirement age (in the 50s, I think).

Labor is still strong in France, and anyone who spends much time here has seen it in action. The first time I left France, the people who clean Charles de Gaulle airport were on strike; there were piles of garbage everywhere. Once when I went to do research in the National Archives, a sign was posted on the gate: "Archive on strike." I once saw a protest march by firemen. And now, the transportation strike of 2007. Strikes are a way of life here. Come to think of it, maybe Paris is acutally itself after all.

For more information, here are 2 New York Times articles to read: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/world/europe/18france.html?ref=world
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/opinion/18cohen.html?hp

(I got the picture from the National Public Radio website. I have not been out in the marches myself.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Snazzy Scooter

I saw this scooter on the street a while ago and had to take a picture. Its owner has pasted pictures and words cut out of magazines all over it to create a unique collage (click on the photo to enlarge). It looks like every surface is covered except for the seat and the handlebars. A snazzy way to get around the city.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A World Without Borders?

I saw this sticker on the Pont des Arts. It reads "Neither fatherland nor border. Freedom to travel." Posted by the Anarchist Federation, it challenges some of our most cherished notions in the West about the importance of the idea of a "homeland" with well-defined frontiers -- a nation-state that belongs to "us." In an increasingly global economy, people and goods are moving more and more freely across those borders. Yet we also hold onto the notion of differences between peoples.

It's interesting that Europeans are debating some of the same questions as Americans when it comes to who is allowed into the country (or the EU) and who is not. Drawing those boundaries have become important for some people in France for both economic and cultural reasons; many choose to blame immigrants for unemployment and for cultural decline. These are the same kinds of issues raised by those who want to build a wall along the Mexican border.

I'm not sure what the answers to these complicated questions are, but it seems clear that the conflicts will continue to grow. We want the benefits of a global economy without the costs that come with the increased mobility of money, jobs, goods, and people. It may be hard to have both.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Letters of Language

Well, I can't say much today or show any pictures because the wireless internet in the apartment is not working. At least we do have a computer lab in the basement where I can type this message. Just another part of the ongoing struggle with French technology.

Perhaps this does give me an opportunity to reflect on one thing since it's literally on my fingertips right now: French keyboards are different from those in the US. It's a small set of differences, but just enough to slow down my typing. It turns me from a pretty fast typer into something of a hunt-and-peck typer, just by moving a few keys around.

For instance, the center row of keys on a French keyboard is qsdfjklm -- rather than asdfjkl; -- so when I need the letter a, I often get the letter q because it's in the place where the a is on a US keyboard. Punctuation is in different places too, and you have to use the shift key to make a period. In the internet age, the @ sign is very important, but on a French keyboard, you have to use Ctrl-Alt-0 (excpet that it's not really the 0 key since all numbers must be made using a shift).

And of course they have keys we don't have, in particular letters with accents: é and è and à are all in the top row of symbol keys, except that you don't have to use shift to make them.

Funny how a few keys in a different place makes for a different linguistic experience in something as basic as typing.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Paris Roller Skating


I've never seen so many people out and about in Paris as I did today, especially in the Jardin du Luxembourg. But then it has been a perfect fall day, mid-60s, a little warmer in the bright sunshine. Elsewhere, I encountered one of the groups of roller skaters who tour around the city from time to time. In these groups, there are hundreds, maybe a thousand people who roll together as an enormous pack through the streets. These photos don't really capture the size of the group.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tennessee Jazz

Not far from the apartment is Le Tennessee Jazz Bar. I've not been in, and there aren't any signs out front saying who plays there or what kind of place it is. But it struck me as odd since I'm not sure we would use the phrase "Tennessee jazz" in the US. We might talk about Memphis blues, or Tennessee country music. There is jazz in Tennessee, of course, but I'm not sure that "Tennessee jazz" is a unique genre. They probably just thought that Tennessee would be a clever American name to use. The image of the saxophonist on the sign is clearly of an African-American (in a zoot suit, it seems), so maybe they wanted to choose a southern state? But why not New Orleans or Louisiana jazz? Maybe the owner had visited Tennessee at some point in the past.

This one may remain a mystery, but it's always interesting to wonder about which parts of American culture the French choose to pick up on. What exactly do Parisians think of when they hear the name Tennessee? Apparently, some think of jazz.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Organic Beef?

I saw these cows outside a "restaurant bio," or organic restaurant, near the library and had to take their picture. I'm not sure how organic they are, but their English-language messages of "All you need is love" and "Life is a dream. Make it real!" have a certain kind of "all-natural" sentiment to them. I love the red hooves.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Music on the Metro

I've often thought that a great subject for a documentary film would be the music of the Paris Metro. There are always buskers who hop on the train, play a few songs, and then make the rounds with a hat to collect contributions from their audience. A few people give, although most don't.

I haven't seen as many on this trip. Maybe the Metro administrators have cracked down. Lots of people have i-pods and listen to their own songs. Maybe I just haven't been riding the right trains.

Today, though, when I got onto a train, a man was singing a lovely ballad (in Spanish I think) with a guitar. Then he switched to a rendition of "Love Me Tender." The music on the Metro is nothing if not diverse.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Paris Loves You


It doesn't always feel this way, but according to the sign on this shop, Paris loves me. An interesting way to sell souvenirs. I like the combination of Eiffel Towers and peace symbols on the sign (you may have to click on and enlarge the image to see it).

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Silent Film

I went to a film showing at the Orsay museum with my colleague Katheryn Wright. This was not the sort of thing I'd normally go to, but it related to my research. They were showing a series of short films linked by the theme of "reportage," some old ones in black and white, others more recent. It was a strange mixture of things, but there were several minutes of footage of the 1910 flood, the subject of my research. That's why I went.

The selection seemed even stranger given the audience: schoolchildren. We had to make special arrangements to get into this viewing since everyone else in the audience was about 7 years old (with a few parents and teachers scattered throughout the auditorium). In many ways, the kids' responses to the films were as interesting as the films themselves. At times, they laughed, at times they applauded. When the person from the museum finished his introduction at the beginning, they all yelled out "Merci!"

One of the shorts was an interview with the photographer Robert Doisneau who is famous for his pictures of Paris, including one of a man and woman kissing by the river. The kids had been pretty quiet up to this point (although it took lots of shushing to keep them that way). When Doisneau's kissing image came on the screen, though, they all started whispering and chatting. They seemed to know what the picture was about.

The flood footage was interesting, especially getting to see the moving water. But in some ways it wasn't much of a surprise. The film looked pretty much like all of the photographs I have seen of the flood -- scenes of rescue, of flooded streets, of water up to the decks of bridges. Photographers and filmmakers probably stood in the same locations and took the same shots. And the film was silent, giving me no voices from the moment.

Interestingly, the kids in the audience were (relatively) quiet too during that portion of the presentation, the only silent film in the bunch. I don't know if they were really watching, but a film with no sound made for an audience with very little noise, even when that audience was about 7 years old.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Sandwich, Drink, Dessert

In French "le menu" is not the entire listing of a restaurant's offerings, it's a preselected list you can choose from all for a set price. In American terms, it's like a combo meal. In nice restaurants, you often choose an appetizer (what, in French, is the "entree"), the main course, and a dessert.

The sandwich shops where I sometimes eat lunch also have a menu, or sometimes they call it a "formule," or formula. But there, you choose a sandwich, a drink, and dessert.

This always strikes me as interesting because in the US, our combo meals at lunch are usually a sandwich, drink, and chips or some other kind of savory side dish (potato salad, pasta salad, slaw, etc.). But here, you don't eat chips or potato salad, you eat dessert. Does this speak to some kind of French affinity for the sweet, even at lunch?

Today, I had a sandwich, a soda, and a delicious chocolate tart -- a very dense and rich chocolate cake. But I couldn't eat it all because it was too big. So I took it with me, something which the French don't tend to do (there is no "doggie bag" tradition here). It reminded me of "the great mi-cuit abduction" of last summer when Ellen's mother, Kay, took her molten chocolate cake with her from the restaurant where we were eating. Some things are just too good to leave behind, especially the sweets.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Hard Truths of History

These two plaques, and others like them around the city, speak to a dark chapter in the history of France. The first is on the side of an elementary school in Montmartre and commemorates the Jewish students from that school who were sent to Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe. The second, located at the Orsay (now a museum, then a train station), remembers those who made it back. The plaque notes that the Orsay was the major site for the repatriation of people from the Nazi camps.

Anyone who studies French history knows about the troubling history of the war years, although it's something with which the French themselves have struggled for a long time. Note that the date of the plaque on the school says that it was only installed in 2003. It took American scholars to help tell the story of occupied and Vichy France because French historians were reluctant to delve into that episode on their own. What the scholars have found is that the French sent their Jews to the east even before the Nazis asked them to. They hoped, mistakenly, that they could befriend the Nazis and make the occupation less onerous. In the end, it was a devil's bargain.

Every nation has its demons -- France, the US, everyone. History is often not a pretty sight (take it from a professional historian). But maybe plaques like these begin a process of learning for everyone. I don't believe that history has strict lessons to teach us, but we can reflect on what has happened in the hopes of being better and wiser people as we confront the future.